Sandi Thom was (we are 99% sure) the first artist ever to webcast herself to a live audience from her own home. She was really the first internet music sensation, and although she admits to ‘downplaying it over the years’, actually, she was truly pivotal in the digital music revolution. From her little basement flat in Tooting, London, what could be deemed a publicity stunt soon turned into marketing gold, as Sandi’s audiences rose from 70 people to 70,000. These sessions soon caught the eye of some heavyweight UK broadsheets, which led to the clinching of a major record deal with Sony, and in turn, an explosion onto the UK singles chart on May 22, 2006 with the unique, quirky, and very catchy, I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker (With Flowers In My Hair), which would knock Gnarls Barkley’s mega-hit, Crazy, off the top spot two weeks later.
Although a fantastic story in itself, what the public probably don’t know is, this was actually a re-release... Sandi had already charted with that same song under a self-made indie label, all off her own back; it was play-listed on BBC Radio 2, and she was also interviewed by legendary broadcaster, Johnny Walker. She’d been truly fighting the system, approaching all the majors for a deal (as you did, back then). She then recorded the video for the single ‘on a shoestring’, and prepared the artwork for the record herself, which ended up being exactly the same for the eventual Sony release.
“We were already on a journey, putting it out ourselves, and the webcasting was all part of the plan,” Sandi tells us. “The question had always been, ‘how do you reach that kind of audience without any money?’”
In recent years, Sandi’s musical journey has mostly taken place Stateside. She has recorded five albums worth of soulful music backed by some incredible musicians, and has always tried to stay true to her art. It’s been a roller-coaster of a career (and a life) so far, but she is currently in a great place, making music the way she wants to make it, with a new record deal, a cracking new single, and a brand new album on the horizon – ‘the best yet,’ she insists. Everything is looking particularly rosy for this very likeable, and super-talented Scottish artist. She has many stories to tell, so let’s start from the beginning...
It’s 1996, and Sandi calls in a favour from a friend, a freelance journalist who happens to write for two UK broadsheets, The Times and The Daily Telegraph.
“He came to watch my webcast, sat in the room with me, and wrote an article about it; when that article dropped, that’s what snowballed with all the other media, and then everyone wanted to know about it,” Sandi recalls, breaking into a smile. “It was an exciting thing I was doing – a first - and that’s what attracted the major labels. We’d approached labels before, of course, to try to get a record deal, and the irony of it all was that all these people who suddenly showed interest had already received the same material, prior to the event!”
In hindsight, she says, she was very much in the eye of the storm: a girl in her early ‘20s, suddenly thrust into the limelight. A successful album followed, Smile... It Confuses People,
and two years later, it was time to make that ‘difficult second album’, The Pink and the Lily.
“With any second record, you just want to keep the ball rolling,” Sandi admits. “We did some crazy stuff, flying here, there and everywhere, journals following you, people following you, but you’re still young and growing up at the same time, which is great songwriting fodder! The difference was the formula to making that second record, where labels put their artists in with a bunch of songwriters, and find out which one they like. I experienced the process, and it was so different to my gung-ho, spur of the moment style. You get this guy to mix it, mix it again, change this note, change this lyric. [smiles] I’m building a negative image here, and that’s not really fair, but the process was so different, and I don’t think I fit that, or ever did. I don’t like being told what to do, you see [laughs]. I wasn’t really into it myself, and I am the worst liar, and that’s the same with performance: I just can’t put it on. The audience who bought my records were smart; they got the honesty from the first record, and with album two, admittedly that lacked. When you mix something 100 times, you drain the soul out of it, almost.”
Shortly after, Sandi split from Sony, which, she says, was a bit like being made redundant:
“You get the feeling of rejection, and I have always been driven by doing well for everyone. I kept it going in an unrealistic way: still toured, lived in a bubble for a while, with this ‘it doesn’t have to end’ attitude. I was probably one of the last artists to get tour support from a label, and really, we were riding the wave.”
This didn’t deter her from making a third record, of course. Around this time, she had met, and then got engaged to, acclaimed blues-rock guitarist, Joe Bonamassa. Through Joe, she got into a lot of ‘obscure guitar music’, which became a big influence for Merchants and Thieves (2010).
“It was certainly a darker record than the first two, and that was also going on internally with me,” Sandi recalls. “The blues seemed to fit: raw, roots, swampy; and there was a lot of depth to what I wrote that I hadn’t been able to before. There was no commercial, layering, formulaic production; sometimes we’d end up using a guide vocal, as we were so relaxed, and unaware. I was doing all those things you can’t do on a major label pop album; I think it brought out the rebel in me, actually.”
Merchants and Thieves (a lyric borrowed from Dylan’s Changing of the Guards) was about as honest and ‘real’ a record as you can get, Sandi admits. The irony, she says, was that it wasn’t a commercial success. But that’s not everything, after all:
“It’s one of my babies, and I’m proud of it, as it reflected a time in my life. We didn’t make a truckload of money, but that’s not what you always aim for. It was very transitional, and I was moving around a lot, so for me, it’s about those memories.”
We jump to 2012. Sandi is living with Bonamassa in West Hollywood, starting again musically in a new territory. She does what any new girl in town would do: create a new label, woo the CEO of leading distribution company, Fontana, and secure global distribution for her next record!
“When Fontana agreed to give me a chance, I was over the moon,” she beams, eyes widening. “It was the first time in a long time that someone had believed in me, so I was in a good position again, fell into the Fontana family, and went to make another record.”
That record was Flesh and Blood, which, through a simple twist of fate, was produced by Black Crowes’ guitarist, Rich Robinson.
“Joe was in Nashville, I was in New Orleans, so as you do, I decided to drive 11 hours in a convertible Mustang by myself, and went to see a friend of mine who runs an indie label there,” she says, laughing. “When I got there, he suggested talking to Rich Robinson, so I called him out the blue, and had a very long, deep chat about what I wanted to do. So we agreed to meet
in LA, I played him some songs, and he was like, ‘yep, let’s do it’. So he made the next record.”
The record was made in 16 Tonne studio, where ‘you can record in the bathroom, kitchen, all sorts’, due to the facility’s amazing acoustics. It also benefitted from an all star band, put together by Robinson, which included Sheryl Crow’s guitarist, the late Bobby Keys on sax, and even a guest performance by the legendary Buffy Sainte-Marie.
“If you’re into the Baez, Mitchell, Dylan era, you might know that Buffy was a badass! The FBI were taking her songs off the radio, put it that way,” Sandi says, as I make a note to Google her. “My mum was a big Buffy fan, and she said I should find her, so I did. I emailed her manager, said I loved her, and that Buffy was my mum’s favourite artist in world, and she agreed to do it! She said, ‘girl you’re a powerhouse!’, and she guested on the record, which was just amazing.”
What a journey... So all those people that wonder where Sandi Thom disappeared to back in 2006, now you know! During Flesh and Blood, Robinson would antagonise Sandi to get her to perform with some angst, which helped created a bluesy, soulful sound.
“To be honest, I feel like there’s always a lot of soul in my music; you associate soulful singing with real, honest performances, whatever the genre,” she reflects. “Listen to Adele. Yes, it’s pop, but it’s got soul; and that’s always something I have maintained as a singer. Flesh and Blood was teetering on the lines of some memorable catchy songs, but the production was very Nashville, with Rich’s influences in there. I think it’s an awesome record to listen to, and the level of musicianship in the room was off the chart. I hoped people would take note, support it, and then I made a video for the single, Flesh and Blood, which ruffled a few feathers as I used part of Martin Luther King’s speech, but only because I thought it was cool.”
This prompts me to ask Sandi where the next Dylan, Joni, or Lennon will come from, considering what is becoming a more and more ‘Big Brother’ society.
“We were talking about this last night, actually, and these artists are still out there, but not globally recognised; it’s just where the music industry is right now,” she says. “I could have made the decision to fall between the lines, and conformed to all the things I should have done, but I didn’t. I feel like I can sleep at night, so I am comfortable with my decisions so far.”
In 2013, Sandi put together a very nice sounding album of cover versions, ‘mainly for her fans’, which received some critical acclaim; and then in June 2014, she broke off her engagement with Bonamassa, and found herself in yet another transitionary state.
“It was a real roller-coaster of a year, and I knew I had to get my shit together,” she says, softly. “Joe wanted a life on the road, I eventually wanted a family, so really, it was a case of, ‘where is this gonna end up?’ But it was also very tough and very emotional, as we were two peas in a pod. It was the next chapter, and I wrote a lot of songs. I then did some gigs, including the Sunflower Jam at the Royal Albert Hall, with [Deep Purple drummer] Ian Paice and his wife, Jacky. I did two of those shows, and that’s where I met David Rogers from MITA.”
MITA is Sandi’s new label, which she seems to have a great relationship with. The label also looks after fellow Headliner interviewees, Radio Riddler.
“I knew I should collaborate again with a support network, especially now, so when David called me after the Sunflower Jam and said he was looking for new artists, it was the ideal situation,” Sandi explains. “I’m not like I was 10 years ago; I am smarter, and I have all this stuff going on that I now don’t have to worry about anymore thanks to the label support; but at the same time, I have all the creative control. It’s a great place to be.”
Sandi is producing the new record herself, which she sees as a good thing, as she now knows where she is business wise, and musically.
“I have seen what you need to do to make something commercially appealing, and I can do that and still be myself; it’s about finding the balance, sitting on the fence, and producing the album,” she insists. “I am working with a guy who I met through Joe, and Joe’s drummer, Tal Bergman, so it’s a co-production really. We did stuff before the covers album, so it’s a cool relationship. At this point, I have played everything [on the record] bar one bass line, and someone came in to play the bouzouki. I wanted to interject the world theme into it, with some celtic instrumentation: fiddle lines, pipes, you know? I am staunchly Scottish, and you mentioned about my trilly voice, a lot of that comes from the whole celtic thing.”
It did indeed. Very Joni. And there’s more than a hint of that in the single, Look Up, too. If that’s anything to go by, it looks like it’s going to be a beautiful album.
“I was pretty down in the dumps, so the title is self explanatory, but I decided to make it very much about social commentary, how in this digital age, we live with our heads in our phones, buried in our own worlds,” she says. “My friend Jeff Silbar (who penned The Wind Beneath My Wings), came and played guitar on a track we wrote together, then said he’d been to Nashville and someone had written exactly the same song that I’d written, with the same principle, same title, everything. In the songwriting world, there is always a song that needs to be written, but I am not the only one who is thinking it, clearly, so I said, ‘shit, get it out now!’ And that’s the story behind that song. Hopefully, everything that’s happened has been the catalyst really in reviving myself, and my career. Not that I haven’t done a lot, I have, but I haven’t been ‘living room chat’ for some time, which is something I’d like to change.”
The stars seem to have aligned, both musically, and on a personal level, for Sandi. She met a lad from Yorkshire in a bar in LA (as you do) on December 30, 2014, and on Valentine’s Day 2015, he popped the question, and they married at a ranch in Malibu in September. What a difference a year makes!
“Exactly! On Facebook at the end of last year, I said I wanted two things: find the love of my life, and make the best record I’ve ever made. I don’t know if you believe in God, or fate, but for me, this is totally fate,” she says. I can’t argue with that. And the record? “I’m making it chronologically, so it’s one whole piece of art. I want people to buy it as a period of my life, and this is a chapter. I have segues, and I am also conscious I need to provide people with what they want, but maintaining the quirks too. That’s the plan, anyway!”
Sandi’s new single, Earthquake, is out on November 13, and the album will follow later this year. It’s going to be a belter.